Rehumanize 101 — how excluding others slowly kills us both

It’s Freedom Day in SA — and I thought I’d weigh in on what I think is wrong with our country (and world), and how to fix it.

Unlike my other posts, this one is not directed only at parents, but everyone in SA. For parents who do read this, I suggest this is the kind of stuff we need to teach our kids.

Here’s my big idea: there will always be an ‘other’ — someone who is not part of your ideological/relational/cultural/racial tribe. And how we treat ‘the other’ — either excluding or including them — says much more about us than it does about them.

In cyberspace, social media feeds read like battle zones — opinions like missiles take aim at the other — villainizing the president or demonizing all white people. What both these voices betray is a way of looking at the world that divides it into the good guys (my tribe) and the bad guys (the other).

It’s not just us. In the DSA (Divided States of America), Republicans and Democrats tear at each other endlessly. They don’t just attack each other’s views — they attack each other. I think of Trump shaking his head and saying, ‘These are not good people, not good people,’ while a group of protesters is removed from one of his rallies.

Playing the person not their position is a paradigmatic tool, one we use to try make sense of and gain power in our fractured and unequal country and world.

The problem is that it’s a very primitive tool that doesn’t work. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But what if our situation is not a nail? What if we can’t simply divide the world into the bad guys and everyone else?

In this post I want to put forward 2 tools that involve far more soul-searching.

  1. The first tool is an awareness of your and my tendency to lock arms with our tribe in such a way that we exclude those in other tribes, treating them as less than us.
  2. The second tool is perspective taking — fully re-humanizing the other in our mind.

I postulate that these are the 2 tools missing in both public debate (opinion pieces and social media) as well as private conversation.

Why do we exclude other groups?

For two reasons.

One is that empathizing with the subjective experience of someone in another group comes less naturally to us. In many neuro-imaging studies, when people of two groups (eg friends and strangers) were exposed to other’s emotional distress while in a brain scanner, it appeared that our brains seem to be wired to care for our group more, and less so for those we see as ‘other’.

The other reason is we’re insecure. We’re looking to justify ourselves. When we see the other group as the bad or inferior group, it bolsters the worthiness of my group. By excluding them, we elevate us. By demonizing the other, we highlight our group’s (and my) significance and legitimacy. By putting them on the outside, we find ourselves on the inside. By seeing them negatively, we see ourselves, and expect others to see us, positively.

In fact, much philosophy, sociology, and literary theory recognizes this propensity in human nature. It was Zygmunt Bauman, in his seminal work, ‘Modernity and Ambivalence’ who argued 25 years ago that identity in society depends on creating dichotomies: we, on the inside, only make sense of ourselves because we are not those on the outside. This is, Bauman says, always an exercise of power. It’s a power that disguises itself by denouncing the other, seeing them as “degraded, suppressed, ignorant, exiled.” As a group we judge and look down upon other groups and tribes in order to secure our elevated place in the world.

And we have a special self-deceptive strategy to mitigate this evil: we contrast the best things we have done with the worst things they have done. We see ourselves as a fully human 3-D nuanced tribe of people, and we caricaturize them as a subhuman and sub-moral 2-D group.

I wish we weren’t like this. But we are. This is the way the world is. It’s the reason for all the wars — especially when both groups exclude the other.

But it doesn’t have to be true of you and me, or our kids.

Victimhood as status

In the past, the highest status was conferred to those in positions of power and wealth. But the rise of social media has seen an interesting reversal. Now it is the recognized victims of society who are dignified with firstclass status.

Although we all may battle vestigial guilt for our personal inadequacies and failures — the closest thing to redemption that modern society offers is to be recognized as a victim.

In his brilliant essay — ‘The strange persistence of guilt’ — Wilfred McClay points out that ‘claiming victim status is the sole sure means left of absolving oneself and securing one’s sense of fundamental moral innocence. If one wishes to be accounted innocent, one must find a way to make the claim that one cannot be held morally responsible. This is precisely what the status of victimhood accomplishes.’

In SA — and in other post-colonial countries — we have the interesting situation where the kids and grandkids of the oppressed are bestowed with the pure innocence of victimhood while the kids and grandkids of the oppressor are bequethed with guilt and shame.

But the plot thickens….

Victimhood as faultlessness

The conferred status of innocence does not in reality absolve anyone of their personal faults.

Yet we imagine it so.

Who can blame the abused boy for seeking revenge on his abuser? Anything the oppressed one does out of that sense of injustice is now acceptable. And when it comes to the oppressed group acting vengefully out of that sense of injustice, while still claiming the rightness of their actions, we leave centuries of wisdom in the dust.

In our country, too many have bought into the neo-Marxist misbelief that the line between evil and good wedges between one group and another.

But that’s so simplistic.

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” So wrote the Russian novelist, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, after years of imprisonment for criticizing communism.

We’re all capable of good, and we’re all capable of evil. But the moment we believe that our societal status is also automatically the stuff we’re made of, we’re more susceptible to evil than ever.

That’s what concerns me so much about white people who feel that economically suffering under a corrupt and self-serving regime means that however we speak out against that regime is acceptable. Is it really okay to attack Zuma’s level of education, mathematical ability, perceived cultural or moral inferiority? Maybe what Zuma means when he calls white protestors ‘racists’ is that they don’t only disagree with his decisions, but that we despise him personally? By all means, protest against the abuse of his position, but when we look down upon him from any position of moral or cultural superiority, we have become part of the problem. We unwittingly have fallen for the lie that we are merely victims instead of complicit players in a complex tapestry of factors.

It’s also what concerns me about so many of the black voices that I encounter online: the refusal to admit that there might even be a seed of racism or a seed of blinding bitterness in one’s own psyche, means that people are far more vulnerable to the full flowering of that seed than ever before.

Why is it so important to own the excluding evil in our own psyches? Mainly because of the frightening kinds of actions that flow out of an attitude of superiority:

Ways we exclude ‘the other’

Theologian Miroslav Volf in his book, ‘Exclusion and Embrace’ tells us that there are 4 ways we exclude or dehumanize another group:

1. We can exclude ‘the other’ by killing them (or driving them out).

Like the Spaniards did to the Native Americans — seeing them as halfway between beast and man. Like the Brits did to the Afrikaners in the Anglo-boer war. Like the Japanese did to the Chinese in the 1937 raping of Nanking. Like the Nazis did to the Jews in WW2. Like the systemic annihilation of so many freedom fighters and weaponless protesters during Apartheid. Like the Hutus did to the Tsutsis. Like locals did to African foreigners in the xenophobic violence and murders. Like ISIS, like Boko Haram.

In all these cases, an imagined sense of ideological, moral-high-ground or cultural superiority preceded seemingly unthinkable atrocities.

2. We can exclude ‘the other’ by assimilating them.

We can demand that they conform completely to our own patterns and standards, refusing them the right to express any difference at all. It’s saying, ‘We will refrain from vomiting you out if you let us swallow you up.’

One disguised kind of assimilation, is relating to ‘the other’ as people that I can rescue. In so doing, we don’t realize that we unwittingly see ourselves as superior to the people we think need our help, the people we think would benefit if they were more like us. Any help that is given with this mindset does not bestow dignity, but rather dependency.

3. We can exclude ‘the other’ through dominating them.

We will let you live among us and maintain your identity, but only if you assume an inferior place — not getting certain jobs, attaining particular levels of pay, or living in certain neighborhoods. This was the cold calculated way of Apartheid. It is how countries tend to treat immigrants.

4. We can exclude ‘the other’ through abandoning them.

We simply ignore or avoid you, thereby silencing your voice, taking no thought of your thoughts, feelings or needs. This is how the Indonesian government seems to treat its citizens in West Papua. It is also roughly how society tends to treat homeless people.

It’s what the Group Areas Act of old enables still — like the Voortrekkers, who would fence off the unknown and distrusted outsiders, many white people in SA thrive in white ghettos of privilege — with largely racially homogenous schools, suburbs and high-wall security estates.

If we surround ourselves with enough people like us where we live, work and play — it’s as though the other hardly exists, and neither do their needs and voices.

I add to Volf’s list another two ways we exclude ‘the other’ enabled by technology…

5. We can exclude ‘the other’ by shaming them.

This is especially possible through the omnipresence of social media. There is a difference between a guilt culture (a good thing) and a shame culture (not so good).

In a guilt culture, we know we’re good or bad by what our conscience feels, by the transgression of unchanging ethical standards. In a shame culture, we know we’re good or bad depending on what posts are going viral, and how loudly people are shouting. Here, there are no permanent standards, just the shifting judgment (which may or may not be objectively correct) of a sizable online crowd.

In a guilt culture, we’re taught to make changes based on the fact that we have done bad things. In a shame culture we’re taught that we’re hopeless because we are bad people. Public stonings in the market square have been replaced by cyber-stonings, ruining lives at the click of a button.

(If I can express my personal reservation about this trend: in a shame culture, it seems we’re permitted to be completely bigoted towards anyone we perceive to be bigoted. Can’t we see the hypocrisy latent in this?)

6. We can exclude ‘the other’ by generalizing them.

Instead of individualizing people, we tend to find it increasingly easy to lump them together in our minds, reducing the whole group to a one-sided, superficial and exaggerated stereotype rather than perceiving their real variety, depth and complexity.

The self-deceiving mental propensity of ‘confirmation bias’ causes us to then look for and see behaviours in a group that confirm our stereotype. Tragically, this stereotyping only fuels racism in so many white South Africans who fail to separate what is happening in politics (the way Zuma runs his government, the corruption of state-owned enterprises) from the black individuals they encounter every day — and vice versa.

Stereotyping feeds the other 5 kinds of exclusion. For example, the only reason Hitler was able to command the murder of Jews is that centuries of anti-Semitic stereotyping were firmly rooted in the Germanic people.

Hutus and Tsutsis

All kinds of exclusion are terrible, but the most alarming manifestation of exclusion in SA, I think, is threatening ‘the other’ with death.

For example, I read a post by a white 20-something who attended the Black Friday march. He joined a circle of black guys only to realize by their angry swearing at him that he was at the wrong protest. As he walked away, they began to chant: ‘Kill the white — take back the land.’ He was relieved to be warmly received by many more black guys in the march he was looking for.

The 1994 genocide of 800,000 Tsutsis by the Hutus followed the Hutu Ten Commandments — a declaration of exclusion — created in 1990 which stated that all Tsutis were power-hungry, anti-God, dishonest, and not true Rwandans, and they should not be trusted at all. This sense of moral superiority and ingrained distrust needed but a match to spark genocide.

And everybody paid for it — both the Tsutsis and the Hutus who later had to come to terms with the blood on their hands.

What’s the lesson?

This: once a group of people believe that the deeds of a few in the other group gives them the right to characterize the whole group by those few, thereby judging, excluding and dehumanizing the lot of them, it’s easy to do things to them that you wouldn’t normally do to humans.

Isn’t this the story of new world slavery, of the Nazi genocide of the Jews, of the Khmer Rouge?

I hope we’re all listening to these bloody lessons of history, because history repeats itself when no one listens.

A better way

There are other paradigmatic tools, but the tool I am putting forward requires that part of what will heal the divides of SA will include greater honesty and self-insight:

Dread the results of exclusion.

When our group excludes others — it can and will eventually lead to negatively stereotyping, shaming, abandoning, dominating, assimilating and/or annihilating them.

Recognize our insecurity.

Own up to our tendency to exclude other groups, based on either ill-conceived superiority that makes it easy to look down upon others, or the masked insecurity that makes us want to or ‘need’ to look down upon them. Solzhenitsyn calls this a true ‘education’ — one that has nothing to do with academics and everything to do with a better self-knowledge. Let me quote him: ‘It’s a universal law — intolerance is the first sign of an inadequate education. An ill-educated person behaves with arrogant impatience, whereas a truly profound education breeds humility.’

Realize that our victim status does not mean we are beyond doing evil.

We might ‘need to destroy a piece of our own heart’ if that piece is cancerous with the seeds of bitterness, hatred, racism, classism, sexism or any other ‘ism’. The fact is, there will always be ‘an other’, but how we treat the other says much more about us than about them. Is there a way to treat another tribe — even one that is completely opposed to your views or makes your life harder — without villainising and caricaturising them? Without excluding them? If your worldview leaves no room for this — it’s as narrow and wrong as the opposing worldview you oppose.

Indeed, the most important tool to heal the divide is this one:

Perspective taking

The hard work of embracing the full humanity of those in other groups is the only way not to exclude them. This requires that we empathize with, and learn the art of ‘perspective taking’. Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela urges us to take the ‘pivotal turn to perspective taking and gaining an integrated view of both the self and the other.’

Along these lines, Stellenbosch University researchers have found that ‘effortful perspective taking has been shown to decrease the use of stereotypes, to increase positive evaluations and caring behaviour towards the out-group (i.e. the other), and to foster increased willingness to engage in meaningful contact with the out-group. Moreover, taking the perspective of a stigmatised individual has been shown to generalize to positive evaluations of the whole out-group.

‘Perspective taking therefore works, but it doesn’t just happen. It is a skill that needs training just like any other mental or physical ability. The more one is open to it, and therefore does it, the better one becomes at it. Perspective taking is what is necessary for us to form a uniquely individualising view of another person, as opposed to generalising.’

We’ve known this for a long time

The other day my wife was asked to pray during a church service for the situation in our country. She took the counsel of Jesus: ‘Pray for (not against) your enemies’. By ‘enemies’, Jesus means the people who make your life hard. Jesus taught that by holding people that we imagine to be beyond redemption to the light of a redeeming God, we’re afforded a glimpse of their humanity, which gives them equal membership in the circle of humanity — despite all their shortfalls and painful intrusions into our lives .

The one thing that, not just Jesus, but the most prominent, millennia-old religions teach — a point that surely even my atheist friends can agree with — is, ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’.

In other words, learn to empathize. Put yourself in the shoes of ‘the other’. It’s the only way to fully humanize them in your minds.

Want an example of its power?

The power of empathy in overcoming slavery

How did the 18th century slavery abolitionists begin to turn the tide on the acceptability of slavery in public consciousness? Through evoking empathy. They created an emblem of a chained man on his knees, inscribed with the words: ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ The poignant emblem challenged people to no longer see slaves as less than, or as other than, but as your own sibling, a full human.

People realized then — as we should now — that to exclude others from full membership in humanity is to forfeit some of our own.

Perspective taking and the land issue

In SA, many black people are threatening to take back the land from white people — the rationale that is given includes the idea that ‘white people are callous, thieving imperialists who don’t belong in Africa’.

The ache in white people is not just the fear of loss, but the ache of being excluded — being treated as less than human. I wonder if there’s a less stereotyping, more humanizing way for black people to think of white people as this conversation unfolds?

As for white people, feeling excluded may make one feel that it is acceptable to reciprocate with a similar, denigrating judgment of black people — if not spoken in public (though comment sections under online articles have their share of divisive vocalizers), but certainly in private for most.

But remember the lessons of history? Excluding even those who exclude you will only ruin the future for both you and the other, for your kids and theirs.

I propose that the much much better response starts with making the effort to empathize. But how? White people, may I urge you to practice the art of genuine non-defensive perspective taking. To consider how it must feel to have been stripped of so much and to daily still be faced with the effects of Apartheid. To feel a rising sense of rage and injustice as you realise that 2 decades after democracy, the rich are getting richer and the poor, poorer

When we finally see each other as 3-D human beings, then suddenly, we’re not enemies. We’re brothers and sisters.

Tears in my wife’s eyes

Last night I asked Julie how her day was. She tells me the highlight was her deep conversation with a black man in an hour-long queue. He is a stalwart ANC-supporter, she isn’t. They spoke mainly about their passion and concerns for this country.

Then her eyes moistened as she told me, ‘Despite our differences of view, we both agreed on this — that we want the best for our kids. As we spoke of our love for our children and our concern for their futures, I saw myself in him, and my kids in his kids.’

That’s the liberating, unifying power of perspective taking.

The freedom we need in this beautiful, tortured land and world is the freedom from our excluding tendencies, and the freedom to recapture the full humanity of people who see things differently to us.

Long live this kind of freedom.


Originally published at The Dad Dude.

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